The Joy of Google Apps

This is no trade secret, but this is a powerful tool that is FREE.  If you aren’t using Google apps for your ministry, you should.  Beyond really good email, there are a variety of benefits to organizing your group.

In a nutshell, Google Apps is a bundled product offered by Google to institutions that handle a number of their basic web needs.  The flagship product of Google Apps is their email service, Gmail.  The immediate benefit is having Google’s hosting your email service for your own web domain.  For example if your church has the domain of, then you could have email addresses of and

Google will host your email with lots of storage (about 7 GB), provide a powerful interface to manage users and groups, and give you great options to access your email including webmail, pop3 and imap services.

We’ll talk more about these in the future, but the big picture is that non-IT folks can easily manage a powerful email and user management system through google apps.

In addition, they also throw in a number of collaboration tools including contacts, calendar, word processing, a presentation editor (like PowerPoint or Keynote), a spreadsheet, and the recently revived “start page.”

Here’s a video to better explain what this is all about:

Disclaimer:  The video talks about the premium version of Google Apps which includes a fee per user, but a free version is available with most features highlighted in the video.  If your ministry is a non-profit or educational institution, you can upgrade to premium for free.

Don’t be discouraged if it seems too complicated.  While the initial set-up seems daunting, there is great support and documentation.  Once Google Apps is in place, the learning curve really flattens out.  You can implement the different products available at your own pace.

Enough theory, now it’s time to get our hands dirty.  Let’s create a sample ministry and go through the steps on how to start using Google Apps.

1)  Get a domain name.  While I have extensively used and have had a very good experience with them, there are several sites that offer domains.  Domain names are generally $5-$15 a year.  In addition to domain names, they also offer web-site hosting and other services that we will discuss later.  After buying a domain name, go to the Google Apps site and sign-up.  Don’t be concerned if you see education in  URL address, Google lumps education and non-profit into the same category.   Follow the instructions on how to connect your domain name to Google Apps.

Warning!  Warning!  In the process of validating ownership of the domain name to Google’s satisfaction, you will encounter some words and/or processes that may sound mystical and scary.  BE NOT AFRAID.  While you may or may not ever understand exactly how these things function, the process to make it happen is pretty simple.  However, let me offer a layman’s explanation of the validation process.  Google will ask you to add a random series of letters and numbers either through a CNAME record or an html file.  You will eventually have to make some changes to the DNS settings.  (See, I told you some of it sounded scary.  Deep breath, you’ll be fine.)

Here’s a very crude explanation of how this works.  DNS is how the internet translates names to numbers ie to  CNAME will allow you to get to your email by a common prefix, ie or  Finally, the MX Record will route your email to Google’s mail servers.  If you want to learn more about these processes, check out overviews on Wikipedia.  I offer this inadequate explanation not to confuse or with any pretense that you will be well versed in internet protocols, but just because when I first did it, I felt like I was a small child in the deep end of the pool.  Can you mess things up?  Sure, but not permanently.  There is great documentation and really good control panels to get most of this done.  As long as you remember the password to your Godaddy or other domain name provider, you can fix anything.  Both Godaddy and Google have good support for just this thing.

One parting thought about the authorization and setup process, sometimes changing records on the internet, specifically DNS records, takes time.  This is not a cause for concern, just a reality of the internet.  If you are making this changeover from an existing email service, make sure you have a deployment plan and that you have informed everyone on your staff that this is happening.  I would also encourage you to make changes on a low email priority day.  Often I made such changes on a Friday afternoon and had the weekend to work out any issues.  This is only a security measure.  To date, all of my installations were complete by 5:00PM.

2) Once completed, give your team email addresses and access to the Google App site.  For this example, our site will be  Our pastor will be George Mypastor and I will be Trey DeSample.  (You get the idea).  I suggest that you create a standard for email names.  I prefer to use the first initial followed by the last name for the main user name.  However, I also give each member an email alias using their first name.

Example:  User names: and
Nicknames for each account would be and

Emails sent to a nickname will forward the main account.  So, an email address to forwards to  Nicknames are more accessible to the congregation and the more formal naming of the main accounts help to reduce confusion for the IT staff.  ie When Judy Smith has an email issue, is easier to distinguish from jjnones (Judith Jones) rather than vs

So far, no magic, but here’s where smart planning helps for future growth and more efficient communication.

One of the greatest advances in communication in our workplace was the simple creation of a group email address that forwarded to all staff members.  For our organization this would be  Set this up under the “groups” tab.

memo@ is a great shortcut to quickly email all of your key staff that you regularly communicate with.  Schedule changes, meeting notices, death notices, policy updates, morale boosters, or anything that you might have circulated a paper memo with in the past can now be handled with this email address.

Likewise, you can create other group emails to quickly route emails to groups such as choir@, worshipcmte@, youthdept@, prayerchain@, etc.  While this functions a lot like groups in Outlook or even Gmail, one of the real advantages to groups is nesting email addresses.  For instance, often prayer requests can be marked to send the lay prayer team or pastoral staff only.  Your pastoral staff is John, George, Kim and Sam.  This group is included in the pastoralstaff@ email address.  Any prayer request then sent only to the pastoral staff can be sent to this email address.  On the other hand, the layprayerteam@ email address is made up of about 10 lay members and the pastoral staff.  To create this group, it will consist of the individual email addresses of those members and you can nest the email address pastoralstaff@ in this group.  Sure this method only saved input for four names, but with many groups and subgroups, this can not only be a great time saver, but also easier to maintain.

The other advantage over the group feature in Outlook or Gmail is the fact that this email address is available to everyone in your domain or the public at large depending on how you set things up.

Another issue with regard to naming nomenclature, email aliases for your leaders (particularly if you have a large organization) will help you easily structure distribution by roles instead of merely names.  If you were a band, it would be easier to spot the absence of the drummer’s email if your group email was sent to guitar@, vocals@, bass@ versus simply John@, Paul@, and George@.  More practically, it would be easier to note the absence of the vice-president of the women’s club from a group mailing if titles are used for aliases.  Such naming nomenclature also is valuable for aiding transitional positions.

Large organization example:  memo would consist of

Then each srpastor@ forwards to george@, IT@ forwards to trey@, and intern@ forwards to anyone designated as intern.

A real world example of this format’s utility is the intern program at my current church.  We have a close association with the local seminary and host multiple interns each year.  Using aliases helps to maintain the structure of the mailing list while the individuals in certain roles change often.  While entering the latest intern, Fred, I will easily make the association to include him in the “intern” group.  Once in this group, he will receive any and all mail that directed to intern@.  So not only will he receive the memo@ emails, but also the worshipplanning@ and the programstaff@ and adboard@ emails.  To add him to each group would be a chore, but because the structure maintains the intern’s alias email from these groups, the only change necessary was add fred@ to the intern@ group email.  The same is true for removing persons from email groups.

One other immediately apparent benefit is the ability to publicly list email addresses for leaders in your ministry without compromising their private email address.  For example, questions about the upcoming VBS are directed to the VBS Chairperson with the alias vbs@ which will forward to

Lest you doubt the benefit to what email through Google Apps can offer, I challenge you to ask anyone using this system to go back to their regular email addresses.  I think you might be in for a fight.

Before we leave the topic of email, it is as important to explore the value of IMAP.  This is simply a different protocol for receiving email from your server.  The two choices are pop3 or IMAP.  Very simplistically, emails downloaded using the pop3 protocol are copies of the email on the server and/or webmail.  Action taken on those email will not be reflected outside of your current client.  On the other hand, IMAP maintains a connection between your client and the server.  (Strictly speaking webmail is really an IMAP client) If you read an email in an Outlook client that is using the IMAP protocol, then it will show as read on webmail.  An email read and then deleted on an iPhone using IMAP (or other mobile devices that use IMAP protocol) will show as deleted on all other clients.  IMAP gives you the freedom to access your email on a variety of clients and devices while keeping the server updated with any changes.  This for me is a HUGE timesaver.

I hope that you can begin to see how quickly and easily this has become a powerful tool AND we are not finished exploring Google Apps by a long shot.

The greatest benefit to ministry from what we’ve looked at thus far is how to communicate better and more efficiently.  I’m sure as you continue to use this product, you will find additional benefits for your organization.  The next tool in the Google Apps arsenal that we will explore is Group Calendaring.

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